Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka

Diana Wichtel’s story is, unfortunately, not unique. Her father was a Holocaust survivor and she grew up in a house filled with silences and extreme contrast. She an

d her siblings and her mother grappled with the challenge of living with a man who was so clearly bright and brilliant but also tortured and tormented. He spoke seven languages, played musical instruments like the zither, the banjo mandolin and the piano and had a wonderful sense of humour. But he was also sometimes absent. The motif of this contrast runs throughout the book, beginning with the first chapter which is entitled: Daddy Mad Face, Daddy Angel Face. She writes: “The house seemed to doze when my father wasn’t there. When he came home, it woke up and stood to attention.”

I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Diana as part of the 2019 Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. One of the first things that I asked was what it was like to grow up in this type of home. She shared that it wasn’t easy. She conveys this adeptly in the book through the different genres  that she uses to describe her perceptions  and memories of her father – from snippets of his medical records from Brockville Psychiatric Hospital (“Patient married a girl from New Zealand in 1949. They met in Vancouver.”) to his own letters and memories.

Driving to Treblinka traces Diana’s attempt to ‘know’ her father long after he disappears from her life and his death. Her book sets itself up as an attempt to chase the past, to hold it and perhaps undo parts of it. In a way, reading this book reminded me of the documentary The Last Goldfish which the talented Su Goldfish created about her father and all she knew – and didn’t – about his life.

For many children of survivors, there is a delicate challenge when writing their parent’s story of survival. Diana alludes to this challenge when she retells a dream she had of her father sitting by her bed and reaching out to take her hand. In her dream, she asks him: “Is it ok that I’m telling your story?”

Clearly, the process of writing Driving to Treblinka, has allowed Diana to embrace much of what she did not know about her father, to rediscover him and to ensure that he is remembered by her children and grandchildren who were never able to meet him.

Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner

9781925498523 One can generally guarantee that if the lovely people at Text publish a book it’s got to be good and this one certainly proves that point! Some of my favourite Text books of 2018 include Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, Helen Lewis’ The Dead Still Cry Out, Carlos Ruiz Zafan’s The Labyrinth of the Spirits, Garry Disher’s Kill Shot and Raphael Jerusalmy’s Evacuation.

I can now add Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner to that list.

What’s not to love about this book? Firstly, the author – a writer, researcher, lawyer with a PhD in criminal law. She’s young and gorgeous and clearly so very talented when it comes to crafting intriguing characters and magnificent plots. And she’s Australian!

The protagonist in this tale, Sandra Pankhurst, is a troubled individual with a complicated past and a devastating occupation. There are so many layers to Sandra and through her telling, Krasnostein teases them all out. Sandra is not necessarily a likeable character. Indeed, she is so deeply troubled that there is a sorrow that follows her through this book like a shadow. Her harrowing job as a trauma cleaner is perfect to convey her inner turmoil and while there are shocking aspects to this book, they are somehow fitting of the trauma that Sandra has experienced in her life.

It was only when I reached the end of Krasnostein’s book that I realised how well it was crafted. The characters and plot seemed to cover up the literary brilliance until the final pages and I’m not entirely sure what made me suddenly appreciate the literariness of the book. Krasnostein is clearly a master literary craftsman who manages to combine complex and troubling ideas of homelessness, gender bias and identity with empathy and honesty in a way that allows the reader to drown in the story without losing sight of the issues and their poignancy.

Witness, Ariel Burger

61q6GcGNoDLI had the pleasure of meeting Elie Wiesel once, at the New York Times in a large room with enormous picture windows out of which one could see a stretch across the night lights of New York City. It was for a book launch for my cousin’s book about his family, a memoir. I have to confess that I was somewhat awestruck by the venue and the view and the smell of newsprint and of course by everything that Wiesel represented in the world. My cousin introduced me to Wiesel and my memories of him are that he was shorter than I expected for someone who was clearly so great and that his eyes were more penetrating than any I had ever seen. When he looked at me I felt as though he saw straight into the heart of me, into my soul as it were. I was in his presence for less than 5 minutes. I was too in awe to say anything except ‘Lovely to meet you’ and to smile. But  I will never forget the intensity of his gaze. When I heard that Wiesel had passed away I remembered fondly this one fleeting encounter and I counted myself as honoured to have had the opportunity to meet him all those years ago in that big room in the sky with the picture windows.

When I heard that Ariel was writing this book I knew that he had to meet my cousin whose last name is also ironically Berger (different spelling and not related). It is serendipitous that my cousin, Joseph Berger is also writing a book about Wiesel although his is more of a biography. Ariel and Joe spoke. Ariel’s book was published. Joe’s book should be out next year. I jumped to read Ariel’s book and I will similarly jump to read Joe’s.

Witness is quite possibly one of the most special books I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I confess that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect … how was Burger going to share the “lessons from Elie Wiesel’s classroom”? I wasn’t disappointed. This book invoked in me a deep sorrow and sense of loss at the reality that I never got to sit in Wiesel’s classroom, that I never had the privilege of learning from him in the way that Burger so clearly did. The lessons and thoughts that Burger shares in this book are beyond inspiring. They are magnificent and profound and from the first words I was immediately reminded of the intensity of Wiesel’s gaze as I remembered it and of his path through the world as a true witness – a witness not just to tragedy and inconceivable devastation but more importantly, as a teacher and a mentor, a witness to the way that young people’s minds can grow and change as they are challenged to think and rethink their perceptions of the world and of life. In this, Wiesel was clearly a master and Burger was so fortunate to have the extended opportunity of spending so much time at the feet of such a giant.

There is so much wisdom in this book that it is impossible in one reading to do it justice. What I will share is that it is one book that I will not be sharing with friends. I want to read it again and underline the key passages that trouble me or make me smile. I want to make a list of books that Wiesel recommended or used in his teaching and I want to try and capture for myself some of his valuable lessons and find ways to use them in my life. I will be telling my friends to buy their own copies so that they can know the joy with which Wiesel lived and the way he inspired others to similarly find their joy.

This is one of those books that every thinking and feeling human being needs to read. And if you have the chance to meet Ariel Burger make sure you listen intently to all he says. His gaze is not nearly as intense as Wiesel’s – I know because I have had the pleasure of learning with Ariel. Ariel’s gaze is more graceful and less intimidating. What I remember of being in his presence is the way his gaze provides spaces for him to listen. This book stands out as a sign of Burger’s true talent as a thinker and a listener. A witness in his own right.

A Slurry of Thrillers …

I’ve treated myself to indulging in a slurry of great thrillers over the last few weeks – perfect books for the beach or for that winter’s day when you need to crawl under the covers and drown in a great story. Rather than devote a post to each of them, I’m summarising them here!

John Grisham, King of Torts

61HVddL4TxLI have no idea how this book escaped me when it was first published in 2003. I read it in one day. All 486 pages of it. I couldn’t put it down. Literally. It was fast paced and gripping and filled with a wonderful array of characters. I quite liked the level of intrigue although it wasn’t too brain busting which was exactly what I needed.

Interestingly, this book seemed to me to be somewhat of a return to Grisham’s traditional model of writing – it read like the early Grisham books that I loved. This was good.

My only criticism is that the ending was perhaps too neat.

Nonetheless, a great summer read.

Mary Kubica, Every Last Lie

Nick is dead and Clara is left to work out whether he died by his own hand or whether someone killed him. This was a fascinating insight into the mania that can grip someone when they are immersed by grief and the terrible consequences of a life built on lies and deception. Every Last Lie is a well written book with solid characters – I particularly liked Maisie, Clara and Nick’s young daughter. The sub-plot of Clara’s parents and their challenges was a nice shift and provided some unexpected relief from the intensity of Clara’s tragedy.

I had a few irritations while reading this book – but they didn’t stop me from reading through to the end!

Sandra Brown, Low Pressure

13507011Sandra Brown writes a book that is guaranteed to be exciting, fast paced, filled with the perfect balance of intrigue, deception and family drama – along with a bit of spice just to keep readers interested.

Meet Bellamy (the name was distracting). She is terrified of storms. Her fear stems from a tragedy which occurred at a family picnic when a sudden storm left her sister dead. Numerous people are brought in for questioning when it is discovered that Susan, Bellamy’s sister, wasn’t killed by the tornado but was murdered.

Bellamy spends her life living in the shadow of this tragedy and as an adult, adopts a pseudonym and writes the story which has haunted her for so long. Unfortunately, her identity is discovered and Bellamy and her family are thrown back in to the spotlight. Thus starts the journey that Bellamy has to take back to the scene of the crime and back to the people who were suspects all those years ago.

Karen Dionne, The Marsh King’s Daughter

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Dionne’s book is one of the Read Hot Reads at my local library. And what a read it is!! Dionne has crafted an intriguing and gripping tale that was simply impossible to put down. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this book and I’m not going to spoil any part of it by providing details! This is a great read for anyone who loves a good thriller.

The Secret, Katerina Diamond

downloadThe Secret is Katerina Diamond’s second book. I didn’t read the first but I’m definitely going to – if it’s anything like this one I won’t be disappointed.

I think Diamond achieved a great balance of character development, intrigue and pace in this thriller. I wasn’t certain at the outset that she would manage to juggle the elements, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in to the plot and to become gripped by the flow of events. I didn’t expect the twist and while others have criticised the ending, I wasn’t bothered by it and I found the ambiguity of the relationship between DS Grey and criminal Dean Kinkaid fascinating and definitely worth following.

I’ll be looking out for more books from Katerina Diamond.

Angela Clarke, Follow Me

27853619Well this was a surprise! One of those quick grabs from the library that grips you and throws you into a tail spin of delight. What a clever plot from Angela Clarke with a series of supremely unusual characters and a great secret between long lost friends!

Meet Freddie, a wannabe journalist who is really a waitress just waiting for her big break, living on the sofa in a share flat in London. She bumps into her old friend, Nasreen, who happens to be a cop and after following her stumbles across a murder that unfolds on social media with hundreds of thousands of people following along.

Not only was this a well written thriller with wonderfully developed characters, but it also had me thinking deeply about how easy it is to find things out about other people, how transparent the internet makes our lives and how vulnerable we really are because of the virtual world.

A great and surprising read!

The World Made Straight, Ron Rash

9781922182999A few weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of reading The World Made Straight by Ron Rash. Rash is a master of description with a wonderful ability to bring characters and landscapes to life. I loved the flow of this narrative, the flawed nature of all the characters, and the way Rash teased them to life with intricate care. I fell straight in to the plot with its rural setting and Civil War history.

Rash is a master storyteller with a magnificent ability to make even the vilest of characters worth reading about. His prose is raw and tender and filled with his deep appreciation of the complexity of human nature and man’s ability to overcome even the greatest of challenges.

On some level this book made me think of Catcher in the Rye with its teenage angst but with a real world twist. I couldn’t help but wonder what Holden Caulfield would have done had he faced the gritty reality that haunted Travis. A comparison of the two characters would make for interesting reading.

I loved Rash’s The Cove and I loved The World Made Straight too. Ten points to #textpublishing for this book!

Daniel Cole, Ragdoll

30259893So this had the makings of a great book – “One body, six victims, A detective coming apart at the seams …” I really was excited to read it. But it left me deflated. All the ingredients were there and the plot was certainly different with a body discovered composed of the dismembered parts of six victims sewed together, found hanging in an apartment, hand pointing out the window. What was not to love?

Harper Collins calls this “a gruesome delight” but it left me bored. I was relatively intrigued by the protagonist, Wolf, but his previous stint in a mental institution seemed far too contrived to me and I struggled to understand why he would be reinstated after such a significant fall from grace. In short, the whole plot fitted together too neatly for my liking and left me frustrated and I didn’t feel connected enough to Wolf and his plight.

I read it through to the end though so if you’re looking for something mindless then this might just do the trick!

The Book of Dirt, Bram Presser

download (2)So I have a confession to make: For the last few weeks I have been sleeping with Bram Presser. Literally. He is in bed with me now as a type. Or at least, his book is in my bed and the book contains so much that is true to Bram that it is hard to separate him from the book and the book from him.

I first read this novel when it was in raw manuscript form, unedited, filled with long beautiful passages that existed because Bram thought they had music. And they did. Reading this original version was like being on an archaeological excavation, finding some gems along the way but also getting covered in lots of dust that never seemed to disappear and then finding pebbles stuck between the indentations of your shoes, pebbles that ultimately became part of the shoes themselves.

Reading it a second time with much more focus because now I know the characters and I am familiar with the overall narrative story and some of the nuances that are buried between metaphors and objects, I can focus on the magic that Bram tries to bring to this story. It’s hard not to be captured from the opening epigraph:

“Within a few generations almost all of us will have been forgotten. Those who are not will have no bearing on how we are remembered, who we once were. We will not be there to protest, to correct. In the end we might exist only as a prop in someone else’s story: a plot device, a golem.”

There is so much that Bram is trying to achieve in this book and I was humbled by his revelation that his “grandfather and Vera had survived two different Theresienstadts, on parallel but competing plains in the multiverse that was the Holocaust. No matter what evidence I put forward, his experience would always seem fanciful to her.” This, Bram describes as “the great Perspex wall of Holocaust ownership, the barrier encountered by every member of the second and third generation who tries to make sense of what happened to their family.” Presser’s book is an account of what happens when these children and grandchildren of survivors try and bear witness to honour the memory of those who suffered before them. And the reality, as he recounts, is that there is much that we will never know. This doesn’t stop Presser from trying to gather the various strands of his ancestors’ narratives and he goes to great lengths to make his retelling as accurate as possible – letters to Yad Vashem and other memorial organisations, visits to sites, interviews and photographs and letters from grandparents. It’s a mammoth effort which clearly consumed him for many years.

The legacy of the experience resonates throughout this book – Presser holds his grandmother’s ring –

In the camps, she carried a small gold ring ...

… I held it just once, this witness to her ordeal. It was the touchstone of her legend – stories of courage, of strength, of devotion – and yet, it seemed to insignificant, resting there in my hand. I rolled it between my fingers, hoping it would reveal her secrets. So much of what we’d come to believe seemed impossible but, as one survivor told me, survival itself was impossible.”

The weight of the sorrow in this book is breath-taking.  And where there are strands that Presser cannot verify, he acknowledges it and when there is just no way of knowing, he pays homage to these people long gone by reimagining them – a boy, a name, a family, neighbours … “all of whom will disappear.” This is how Presser shows his “gratitude, recognition, for their lives, for (his) own” … he writes them, he gives them names, his gives them voices. So we come to know Bohus, Gusta, Murmelstein and all the others, as echoes of themselves.

But Presser is not just testifying on behalf of those without voices; he is also raising some profound concerns about Holocaust memorialisation in general. How do we really account for everything and everyone? Who owns the papers, the stories, the photographs and the artefacts? Who is responsible to deal with the many requests for information?

“Most who look back see the Holocaust as some great monolith. We’ve lost the ability to make out the contours, the cracks, the individual shapes. Who still cares about a bunch of books in any one camp? What difference does it make that there was a Central Library in Terezin, a Central Jewish Museum in Prague and, quite separately, a dedicated group, all sorting obscure Jewish books? Distinctions like this no longer matter. The horror has outgrown them.”

It is authors like Presser who seek to find “the forgotten spaces” between the memorials and museums, the relics and artefacts. It is books like these that remind us that in the midst of the horror, people lived.

I have read many Holocaust related books – memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, accounts, fiction based on research, non-fiction. Each of them has added a layer to my understanding and appreciation of this horrific period in human history. While there is value in all these different approaches, very rarely does one find a work that is so rich and majestic in its account. Presser’s book is just this type of book. Despite the fact that at times I was confused by the characters, that I had to pause to remind myself of the connections between people or to catch my breath at the mythical and mystical qualities that lurk behind the text, I was always carried away by unique way that Presser has of capturing a reality that is so unreal… like his description of Auschwitz.

“Its name was a cancer that spread in the soil, sprouting new tumours in the surrounding towns … I walk the rail line through the gaping brick maw that once hungered for human flesh. I could turn around, walk away, but I continue. They are waiting.

It is the vastness that strikes me. The ruins stretch on to the distant forest. One hundred and forty-seven acres. An entire city. To imagine it full, pulsating – I simply cannot. And yet I have seen the mounds of shoes, of glasses, of hair, of dolls. I have searched for familiar names on suitcases. I have witnessed what little remains of their lives. The last gasps of hope. But for me, my generation, it can only be this: an eleventh plague, emptiness.”

And more – “this place swallows name, lives, memories … Thirty-two wooden barracks, four latrine blocks, two kitchen halls. A shit-soaked shrine to cynicism, to arrogance, in this wasteland of the damned. Yet, viewed from the heavens, it is a small tract of dirt. Here, where reason left the world, the impossible flourished.”

So Presser tries to reconstruct his Grandfather as a way to say I love you and in the process he finds himself behind the foundations of Block 31, crouched down on the ground, picking at the blades of grass and digging his fingers in to the mud.

“It is here their story ends, here where I must find peace in not knowing. There will be names – Schwarzheide, Sachsenhausen, Merzdorf – but nothing more. It is too late. What’s left to fill the silence is no longer theirs. This is my story, woven from the threads of rumour and legend, post-memory.

I lie down in the dirt and stare at the crooked red fingers. I try to see the horror but it grows distant, blurring into the autumn sky. A cool drizzle begins to fall. My eyes have grown heavy. The stillness is broken by birds; a great flock, circling the chimneys.”

They chose not to speak and we can easily understand why. But what they have taken with them to their graves has left us, the second and third generations, bereft. Bram Presser, in this magnificent ode to all that is lost, has tried to fill the hole that not knowing leaves.

There will be a hollow, cold space in my bed now that I have finished this second reading. But my mind is filled with a renewed sense of sadness for that rich chorus of millions of voices that I never had the pleasure of hearing.

I invite you all to join me in hearing Bram Presser talk about the journey of writing this book at the Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday 27th August at Waverley Library, Bondi Junction. Tickets available at http://www.shalom.edu.au


Some Gripping Reads

The weather is perfect for curling up in bed with a thrilling read and this week I’ve been doing just that with some of my favourites appearing at this year’s Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival – Nicole Trope, Megan Goldin and Lexi Landsman. I don’t want to share any spoilers, but I do want to tell you that each of these three authors is well worth reading!

Nicole Trope’s sixth book, FORGOTTEN, tells a story that many of us will find familar. Malia is a young mother with three young children, an absent and distracted husband and a pile of bills. One morning she races to the petrol station to buy some milk and makes a decision that in an instant alters the course of her life and leads to the disappearance of her baby. The Detective, Ali Greenberg, who takes the case has her own demons that she is struggling to lay to rest and she knows that solving this case and finding this baby will present some closure to her that she cannot name. Edna, an elderly resident at a boarding house provides a third perspective on the turmoil that unfolds in this gripping domestic noir thriller that critics have compared to the work of Jodi Piccoult.

Megan Goldin’s novel, THE GIRLS IN KELLERS WAY, tells the story of Detective Melanie Carter who is charged with identifying a body found buried near the desolate forest road of Kellers Way. The crime is a cold case and Carter has to rely on Julie West who regularly jogs along Kellers Way to clear her head and escape her own disatisfying existence. Goldin has crafted a story that seems to follow a logical path and then twists to disorient readers, leading them to question everything that they thought was true. The characters are interesting and complex and not always likable and the plot is just uncertain enough to keep readers on the edge of their seat.


THE PERFECT COUPLE is Lexi Landsman’s second book and her first in this genre. It is a book filled with secrets; about the past, about relationships and about our own perceptions of events as they unfold. Landsman has chosen a beautiful setting against which to unfold this story and that adds enormous value to the plot. The characters are layered and wonderfully complex which makes for delicious winter reading. Finally, the plot itself is filled with twists and turns enough to ensure that readers keep wanting more.

Each of these fascinating authors brings something distinctive to the genre by creating complicated and nuanced characters balanced against detailed and unexpected twists in the plot. With the artful guidance of Tali Lavi, Trope, Goldin and Landsman will share insights into the craft, the joys and the challenges and inspiration for writing crime thrillers which so artfully engage audiences. Don’t miss this fascinating discussion to be held at the Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Waverley Library on Sunday 27th August at 2pm. Book Now!